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Closing Time

The life and death of the American mall

Meet Me by the Fountain: An Inside History of the Mall by Alexandra Lange. Bloomsbury Publishing, 320 pages.

It was the last Sunday before Christmas at Owings Mills, a low-slung mall in Maryland. “Jingle Bell Rock” hummed over the speakers, and the aroma of teriyaki chicken wafted through the air. Aside from a few visitors who strolled the tiled courtyards, the mall was empty. It had been this way for some time. Nelson Schwartz, a visiting New York Times journalist, predicted that it would soon become another “dead mall,” a casualty lamented by urban planners and gawked at by internet enthusiasts.

Two years later, the photographer Matthew Christopher visited Owings Mills to capture its fate. His series Abandoned America shows the mall in a state of demolition: broken escalators descend from a light-welled atrium; a tangle of wires spirals from the ceiling. Shafts of sunlight illuminate dust particles in the air. Owings Mills had only been fully closed since 2016, but already it had been sublimated into the spectacular ruins of consumer fantasy.

If there is one thing people love to proclaim dead, it’s the shopping mall. Its killers are familiar: the internet, the pandemic, Jeff Bezos, the sheer number of malls in America (the country has approximately 24 square feet of retail space for every citizen, compared to the UK’s 4.6 and China’s 2.8). The photos of abandoned, empty malls that cycle through Instagram accounts and Reddit forums run by enthusiasts are united by “waste,” the architecture and design critic Alexandra Lange writes in her new book, Meet Me by the Fountain: “a waste of materials, a waste of design, a waste of imagination.” Such images resonate because they are an inversion of our memory of these spaces. For most people, the mall (or shopping center, if you’re in the UK) stands for bright friendliness, bubble tea, and weekend treats. Malls possess an unnerving artificiality, from their plastic palm fronds and climate-controlled atmospheres to their scents of Cinnabon and cloying perfume samples. They aren’t places for nature to reclaim.

Lange’s sweeping but meticulous survey moves from the dawn of the shopping mall in 1954, with the opening of the Northland Mall in Michigan, to the present day, zeroing in on particular architects and mall barons. Some designers, like Jon Jerde, wanted malls to be so fun that shopping would be “beside the point.” Jerde’s CityWalk mall in Los Angeles was a clash of 1990s excess, staged with an oversized image of King Kong and garish signage in homage to Venice Beach (Mike Davis considered it an “ominous parallel universe”). By contrast, the Nasher family, which still runs Northpark Center in Dallas, opted for Corbusian forms and sculptural installations; today, the mall is home to works by artists including Anthony Caro, Barry Flanagan, Anthony Gormley, and Kaws. These two examples are indicative of the widening split Lange identifies between the commercial and academic branches of architecture that emerged in the 1970s. Malls ended up on the wrong side of history: “Good architects design museums; bad architects design malls,” Lange writes. But in the early days, this wasn’t so. Even Frank Gehry designed a mall.

Escalators, atria, a courtyard, and a fountain—walk into a mall anywhere in the world, and its architecture will be reassuringly predictable. The shops will be situated on opposing sides of a brightly lit walkway, and “muzak” will play overhead. The person responsible for this blueprint was Victor Gruen, an Austrian émigré who arrived in New York in 1938. Gruen’s biography now seems at odds with the sprawling, car-centric places where his ideas took shape. He was a social reformer and had been a socialist in his youth: before leaving Austria after the Anschluss, Gruen designed dense municipal housing projects in “Red Vienna,” as the Austrian capital was colloquially known between 1918 and 1934. His hope was that his indoor shopping spaces would form the groundwork for a new kind of suburbia, where the mall would become the town square, community center, and art gallery of the twentieth century city, all rolled into one. In 1956, Gruen opened his first indoor shopping mall in Edina, Minnesota. It housed hundreds of thousands of square feet of shops, thousands of parking spaces, and a three-story “Garden Court of Perpetual Spring”: a seasonless, air-conditioned oasis of fifty-foot trees, magnolia plants, and colorful birds in a cylindrical cage.

Southdale wasn’t a semi-public space like the glassy arcades of Europe that had captivated Walter Benjamin: it was a privatized refrigerator for white people.

Designing the perfect retail environment is a dark art that requires a fine balance between footfall and dwell time. People don’t go to the mall to run errands. The mall is for drifting, for slowly ascending the escalator and being taken in by what you see, a reality to which Gruen’s architecture was perfectly suited. When Architectural Forum covered Southdale in 1956, it praised the “flow up and down” of the escalators, “so easy and uninhibited.” In the commercial world of mall-making, Lange writes that many discussions revolve around the idea of the “Gruen transfer,” the moment when “your presence at the mall tips from being goal-oriented . . . into a pleasure in itself.” In 1975, Joan Didion went to a mall looking for the New York Times; after sitting on a bench to eat caramel corn, she found herself purchasing “two straw hats at Liberty House, four bottles of nail enamel at Woolworth’s, and a toaster, on sale at Sears.” This was the perfect encapsulation of what Gruen hoped to achieve. “The Gruen transfer has taken hold,” Lange writes. Didion didn’t seem to mind.

Gruen’s mall was designed to be a manicured version of the city in miniature, strictly planned and surrounded by parking lots. His answer to the problems of the city, from snow and humidity to crime and landscape, was ever more rigid planning. But his major flaw was naivety. Gruen failed to see that property developers and market imperatives would ultimately compromise his vision. At a time when white city dwellers were leaving downtown in droves, fueled by racist anxieties and the desire to live more deeply segregated lifestyles, Gruen’s shopping mall gave property developers the perfect mechanism to protect “white, upwardly mobile homeowners from those unlike themselves,” Lange writes. Southdale wasn’t a semipublic space like the glassy arcades of Europe that had captivated Walter Benjamin: it was a privatized refrigerator for white people. “Who wants to sit in that desolate looking spot?” Frank Lloyd Wright bitchily retorted when the Minneapolis Star called him for comment on Southdale mall. “You have tried to bring downtown out here. You should have left downtown downtown.”

Gradually, the mall-makers of the twentieth century would set their sights back on city centers. By the mid 1960s, retail analysts had declared downtown in the midst of a “housekeeping” crisis—a racially coded description of the reality that many African American and ethnic minority citizens now lived in the city centers from which white dollars had fled. Urban leaders began the process of demolishing old businesses and buildings and replacing them with newer structures. The idea was to make America’s downtowns appealing to white suburban housewives, who would judge the city in the same way they might judge their homes, as spaces to be privately tended and doused with Lysol. Buoyed by the success of Southdale, Gruen began to sell his planning vision to mayors and urban leaders. He argued that downtown—with the addition of parking lots, pedestrian promenades, and zealous design guidelines—could even compete with the mall. In hindsight, the downtown plans Gruen unveiled while speaking at the Aspen Design Conference in 1955 read like a “‘what not to do’ list for urban renewal,” Lange writes: he called for satellite parking decks for thousands of cars, ring roads, and underground tunnels for trucks.

James Rouse, a mall developer whose early career paralleled Gruen’s, praised the “convenient, gay and human” qualities of shopping malls. To overcome what he saw as the problems with inner city life, Rouse’s big ambition was to build not just a mall, but an entire city from scratch. His chief inspiration was Disneyland. “It seemed to me an authentic fairyland that made joy, caprice . . . and beauty, real beauty, out of such widely diverse subjects as fairy tales, aerospace, submarine rides, haunted houses, monorails, the tropics, and early America,” he wrote of the theme park. Rouse even told an audience at Harvard in 1963 that Disneyland was “the outstanding piece of urban design in the United States.”

While Gruen built suburban malls that were frequented by middle-class housewives, Rouse selected a city’s most attractive traits and repackaged them for aspirational shoppers. In 1976, he opened Faneuil Hall market in Boston, a downtown marketplace redeveloped from three historic market buildings and a promenade. “Rather than new boxes, the frame would be old buildings. Rather than chain stores, the businesses would be quirky and local. Rather than fast food, the cafés would sell fresh pastries,” Lange writes. There was a food court with cuisines from around the world and seating areas for “community picnics.” Rouse had brought the mall to the city, giving old buildings a new use while steadfastly gentrifying a historic neighborhood.

Today, Rouse can be partially blamed for the proliferation of “multicultural” food courts and outdoor shopping spaces staged in formerly historic and industrial inner-city areas. All trade on the spectacle of diversity, elevating what appear to be independent or smaller retailers even while they rinse every square inch of the city for rent. At Coal Drops Yard, a vast outdoor shopping center housed in a formerly industrial area in London, Rouse’s typology is on full display. The space, designed by Thomas Heatherwick (who was also responsible for the Hudson Yards “Vessel” in New York), is billed as a “shopping destination and foodie hotspot.” Its outstretched landscape architecture draws attention to the industrial setting while offering visitors plenty of photogenic backdrops. The shops are carefully curated, selling expensive sandwiches, chore jackets, and international cuisine. It is exactly what one imagines Rouse might have wanted: a shopping center without borders, a simulation of authenticity that feels oversaturated and sterile.

One of the most powerful tools that helped bring the mall back to the city was the business improvement district, or “BID,” which emerged in Toronto in 1970 as a response to the flight of shoppers toward the suburbs. Downtown businesses clubbed together as a group and taxed themselves to pay for things like lights, flower boxes, trash collection, and private security guards. Since then, BIDs have gone global: there are now 355 in the UK, and, as of the mid-2010s, an estimated 1,200 in America, with 74 in New York alone. Frequently, the number of property owners on the board of a BID outstrips that of local authority representatives, Lange notes. In this way, BIDs allow property owners to reshape and govern parts of the city in their own image. This helps to explain why the number of private security forces have surged in the United States and Britain and are now greater than the number of police in both countries.

You know where you are with a mall. If you’re walking through a BID, it’s more difficult to tell: spaces that appear to be public are in fact privately owned and privately policed. To most shoppers, the difference may be imperceptible—until, that is, you do anything deemed “suspicious” or “disruptive” by the BID’s private security force, such as cycling, loitering, or begging. In Britain, where I live, the rapid expansion of BIDs during the 1990s dovetailed with New Labour’s promise to deliver urban spaces that were “clean and safe,” frequently by stigmatizing teenagers, people of color, and the poor through policing strategies such as the widespread use of “antisocial behavior orders.” 

Turning swathes of the city into outdoor malls produces an anti-democratic public realm, where seemingly communal spaces are confused, commodified, and sapped of their potential to incubate dissent. “The theme park presents its happy regulated vision of pleasure . . . by stripping public urbanity of its sting, of the presence of the poor, of crime, of dirt, of work,” the architecture critic Michael Sorkin wrote of Rouse’s outdoor marketplace. “In the ‘public’ spaces of the theme park or the shopping mall, speech itself is restricted: there are no demonstrations in Disneyland.”

Malls are what societies build when hopes for truly public spaces, with all the negotiations and minor conflicts they demand, have receded. Towards the end of his life, even Victor Gruen could see that his great invention had not turned out well. When asked in an interview about shopping malls, Gruen reportedly said that he “refused to pay alimony for those bastard developments.”

Turning swathes of the city into outdoor malls produces an anti-democratic public realm, where seemingly communal spaces are confused, commodified, and sapped of their potential to incubate dissent.

Yet it would be a tragic waste to cede “dead” malls to the post-apocalyptic fantasies of Instagram and TikTok or to demolish them entirely. Lange is more interested in adaptive reuse: the potential for such developments to find new and more democratic lives. “Malls are reservoirs of open space in increasingly built-up environments,” she writes. “Where else could a city, or a suburb, ‘find’ over one hundred thousand square feet of available space for a new public library? Where else could they ‘find’ a new park location close to existing housing, displacing no one, and with minimal demolition required?”

And why should America have all the answers? Towards the end of Meet Me by the Fountain, Lange briefly explores how shopping malls can be a vital space for diaspora communities. Reading these later pages, I thought often of Elephant and Castle, one of the first American-style shopping malls to be built in Britain. The Elephant was designed by Paul Boissevain and his wife Barbara Joan Osmond. Boissevain had spent time traveling in the United States in the 1950s; he would have visited cities that were losing their centers to the suburbs, according to the historian Sam Wetherell. Perhaps he would have even seen Gruen’s shopping malls in their infancy. 

Back home in South East London, the Elephant failed to become what it was originally supposed to be: a place that would “revolutionize” shopping and offer an “entirely new approach to retailing.” It never managed to attract the type of anchor department store—a John Lewis or a Barneys—that was supposed to serve as the beating heart of any successful shopping mall. By the time it closed in 2020, the Elephant looked forlorn, its exterior streaked with water damage and half its units empty. It was often judged a disaster. But by whom?

If you walked through the center’s atriums before it was demolished in 2021, you’d have found a community of Latin American and Polish Londoners sustained by its shops and restaurants, its low rents and shabby informality. A vigorous local campaign to save the Elephant had been launched in the years prior, to no avail. Activists even believed that its disintegration was a deliberate strategy—an attempt to make its destruction seem like an inevitable conclusion before property developers swept in. Already in 2018, traders said the escalator had been out of order for three months and the toilets intermittently closed. With its hot pink exterior and toneless fluorescent lighting, the Elephant was not defined by slick commercialism, privatization, or control. But it was precisely these corporate failures that made it a successful community space. It was, to some people at least, everything that a shopping mall should be.